Israel to boycott Iran’s U.N. speech, signaling deep skepticism of Rouhani

September 24, 2013

Iran's new President Hasan Rouhani, waves after his swearing in at the parliament, in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Israel's representatives at the United Nations plan to walk out from Tuesday afternoon's address by new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The diplomatic boycott is a show of Israel's deep skepticism about Rouhani, whose entreaties for detente with the West they see as a ploy to buy time for further nuclear development.

The walk-out drew criticism from one high-level Israeli official, who compared it to Arab boycotts of Israeli U.N. addresses. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a rising star in Israeli politics, called the move a mistake. "Israel shouldn't be portrayed as a serial objector to negotiations uninterested in peaceful solutions," he said. "We must make the Iranians be peace objectors. Leaving the U.N. Assembly is reminiscent of the ways Arab states behaved towards Israel."

Since taking office in early August, Rouhani has sent repeated signals that he wishes to engage with the West and soften the hard-line rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, including against Israel. A Twitter account associated with the president, as well as one belonging to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, both issued messages wishing "all Jews" a happy Rosh Hashanah holiday, widely perceived as a signal that they would discontinue Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli rhetoric.

Still, when asked last week by NBC News' Ann Curry whether he believed like Ahmadinejad that the holocaust was a "myth," Rouhani deflected, "I'm not a historian. I'm a politician. What is important for us is that the countries of the region and the people grow closer to each other, and that they are able to prevent aggression and injustice."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that he does not believe Rouhani represents real change, pointing out that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remains the ultimate authority. There are some indications that the Netanyahu government may attempt to veto any burgeoning U.S.-Iran engagement efforts, which it worries would only give Tehran more time to enrich uranium. Today's walk-out is a reassertion of Israel's skepticism about Rouhani, as well as perhaps its concerns that it would be sidelined in any direct U.S.-Iran talks.

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Max Fisher | September 24, 2013